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The Sport Digest - ISSN: 1558-6448

A Turkish Delight In Track & Field: An Interview With Turkish Female Middle Distance World Champion Sureyya Ayhan

Meet Professor Dr. Ergun Yurdadon

The author is the new Chair of Recreational Management at the United States Sports Academy. A Turkish citizen he possesses an insightful perspective on female sport performance in countries where women are sometimes not motivated to participate. Dr. Yurdadon was a national championship track runner and won many regional cross-country races. Dr. Yurdadon is one of the foremost scholars in health, physical education and sports in Turkey and they are revolutionizing sport in his region of the world. This conversation with Sureyya Ayhan, the female Turkish runner who won the world 1500-meter championship, provides important answers regarding gender awareness, and peak performance for her culture and throughout the world.

Editors Comment

As the Athens 2004 Olympic Games approach, and the United States Sports Academy’s involvement in Beijing 2008 Olympics intensifies our involvement in the future of sport education worldwide will be substantial. Therefore, it is our mission to investigate how nations prepare for international competitions, and even comment on our view on each model’s effectiveness. A recurrent theme in future Sport Supplements will be the question of national strategic sport planning. For instance, at a recent Olympic Solidarity Coaching Excellence program this editor conducted in a University near Atlanta (1996 Games) we had coaches from many continents- Africa, Europe, Asia, South American and the Caribbean as participant coaches. We found that each nation usually within a regional influence, and because of their national character and style of culture construct their programs very differently. For instance, where the milleage between villages is a short distance in Latin America, kids are trained from an early age, but there is little follow through when they reach the age where they can compete internationally. In Africa the distances between athlete and the few national training camps are so immense that young stars will travel to a local village and take an international star as their mentor.

In contrast, Australia and various locals through Europe, and in the South America vast sums are spent on residential and educational training camps. Even with stipends and sport lottery funds, the results have often been spotty at best in terms of high-level performance. During previous Olympiads a “breakthrough coach” like track coaches Arthur Lydiard, Percy Cerutty or Bella Carolli in Gymnastics were far ahead of the world in technique development, and their athletes won because of a physiological or psychological breakthrough. The old Soviet and East German systems used a strong organizational system (and probably human performance supplements) to dominate the world. Hopefully, the dialogue we can create in this column and the information we will share can begin the discussion on what constitutes ideal training systems and what organizational models best support their implementation. We welcome your input into this debate, as all and everyone will benefit from these discussions.

An Olympic prodigy emerges in Turkey

Now we come upon a world champion and possibly one of the finest female middle distance runners of all time. Her nation, Turkey, has no history of international sport success. Even more surprising, is that the culture she comes from, unlike Bulgaria or China, does not focus on women’s sports. This brings us again to the question of where do we look when seeking the roots of athletic achievement and greatness? Sport Summits, such as the conference the United States Sports Academy is sponsoring during our graduation 2003, seeks a process by which some of these answers can be explored. We will attempt to discover for instance, if Roy Jones, Jr. always had the natural gifts to move up from middleweight to heavyweight boxing champion, or did Mackie Shilstone, his trainer, understand something about high-level performance that would change the way all coaches approach a training challenge. Dale Brown, the legendary basketball coach at LSU had 35 successful seasons-what was his secret?

The interview that follows is in direct line with the future discoveries we intend to make at the Academy. It brings together a well-known research scholar, Dr. Ergun Yurdadon and his national lady Turkish super star Sureyya Ayhan, this is a good place to start our investigation. What makes a champion, how do we discover and develop them, and what national models can foster the steps necessary to reach international sport performance status?

Dr. Yurdadon Overview Statement

My country of Turkey does not really have a tradition of female distance running, however, during the 2002 European and World Athletics Championship, our new female prodigy took the lead from the starting gun in both 1500 meters and won the races without a challenge. No one had ever seen something like this before. I have not!

For the past thirty years I have been a professional in the sport of track and field. To my knowledge, I have never seen a performance such as this before. In this interview I am taking the opportunity to discover how and why this great female Turkish runner has done so well. Her name is Sureyya Ayhan, and from her answers to my questions, you will especially understand why I give her the name- Turkish delight!

The European 1500-meter championship was the pinnacle of success for Sureyya. She ran the world’s fastest time for the year, and left the track with her first European gold medal. Prior to Sureyya Ayhan no Turkish women athlete had ever achieved this magnitude of success.

Sureyya Ayhan’s success must be evaluated in two manners. On a personal level, her exploits on the track have won the hearts of many sports minded international and national communities. She is a heroine and national icon for many girls in Turkey.

A second category is the political and socio-cultural perspective of her achievements. Turkey is a democracy yet predominantly Muslim country, and Sureyya Ayhan is a modern Turkish-Muslim women. In essence she is like a great painter who successfully integrates all contrasts and colors of religion, culture and politics. She has all the elements of her background and culture in harmony and it works. Her success has been achieved within the context of a ‘just society’ and she embodies it working to its perfection.

Ayhan’s athletic artistry teaches us a powerful lesson about cultural differences and about the way people view and present themselves. Her achievements invite us to dream about our own success, and her personality embodies the goodwill of the culture, which she so aptly represents. Friendship and good will through sports isn’t just a concept, she lives it each day and furthers the positive values of her country in the process. I believe most importantly, misconceptions about sport, the abilities of women and the religion of Islam have been hit hard by her unique accomplishments.

Recently, I had the distinct delight of a speaking with her from her current training center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We spoke in Turkish and below is the transcription of our conversation.

Below is the transcript of the discussion between Sureyya Ayhan and myself.

Dr.Yurdadon: When and where did you begin running and what were the circumstances?

Sureyya Ayhan: I started to run competitively in 1992 in Cankuri, Turkey. It was during a local championship and there my present coach Yucel Kop discovered me.

Dr. Yurdadon: Did running become your favorite sport right away or was it just one of the several other physical cultural activities that you participated.

Sureyya Ayhan: I loved running since I was a little girl. I think it is the only activity that evolves and I still do.

Dr. Yurdadon: Knowing that you are at the highest level of your running career- You are the European and World champion and have the best time of the year 2002 for the 1500 meters, how do you feel? Are you enjoying your success and the personal fame that you have?

Sureyya Ayhan: First of all, it is a good feeling to be one of the best in the world. Of course, I enjoy the moment. I have invested a lot of time and effort for what I am doing. When you receive the positive results from your work, it makes you feel great. Especially when I share this success with the Turkish people, the enjoyment becomes overwhelming. You can’t describe it with words.

Dr. Yurdadon: In order to maintain your success level and do better, how is your training for the new year progressing?

Sureyya Ayhan: The training program is going very well. Everything is going in the direction that we (my coach and I) have planned. After this training camp in Albuquerque, we have two more training camps planned. The focus is the World Championship, however I will also run the Golden League series as well.

Dr. Yurdadon: Have you been receiving enough support from the Turkish government on a personal, psychological, logistical and financial level?

Sureyya Ayhan- Yes, both from the official governmental and private business levels, I am receiving good support. The training camp is provided by the Turkish Amateur Athletic Federation (TAAF). On the sponsorship side I have an appearance arrangement with VESTEL (T.V. manufacturer)

Dr. Yurdadon: Now that you are training in the United States and have been here for 2 months. In essence, you are experiencing the great American lifestyle. Being Turkish myself, I know the opportunities for an athlete are enormous. In this country, thinking back, what would you suggest Turkish Athletic officials could do about the development of new champions like yourself?

Sureyya Ayhan: It is important to realize that you would be nowhere without personal, financial and logistical support. The use of science and technology is very important in track & field. I am sure the Turkish government and the officials are trying their best to improve the standards of Athletics for present and future generations with Turkish runners on every front. The availability of coaches along with strong scientific support will significantly enhance the success level of Turkish Athletics.

Dr. Yurdadon: Your current head of the Federation is Mr. Mehmet Yurdadon. He is a former champion and also a graduate of the Turkish Sports Academy. How do you see the role of former athletes with sport education degrees in the future development of Track & Field in Turkey.

Sureyya Ayhan: Very good question. I believe it is a significant advantage for us that a former champion runner and a sport educated person is heading up the Federation. Mehmet Yurdadon understands the key elements of Athletics and what needs to be done.

Dr. Yurdadon- Do you think you could have done even better if you had been living in the United States.

Sureyya Ayhan: Economically and technologically the US is an advanced nation and it is a beautiful one also. I am sure that American athletes are very much enjoying and taking very good advantage of opportunities of this country. However, interestingly, I never felt that something was missing in Turkey. I’ve always enjoyed the unlimited support of my country and her people. Otherwise, I would not be here today. Sure we have a long way to go on the fronts of economy and technological advancements but our culture is very rich and it is a positive influence for everybody who wants to take advantage of it. I love Turkey.

Dr. Yurdadon: You are a public figure and a role model for especially a lot of young Muslim girls around the Islamic World. How do you view yourself in this role?

Sureyya Ayhan: I am very proud to be a champion in the hearts of millions of young Muslim girls. However, I really do not make a separation in terms of my race, color or religious background. I believe we should enjoy our differences and live in harmony.

Editor notes
Summary: It is obvious in the interview that as Sureyya Ayhan was emerging, her federation and government recognized her potential and supported her efforts. It will be interesting to note how the Turkish government organizes the new interest from young Muslim girls that seeks to emulate her success.